Arts & Culture Film, Theatre & TV

The 50th Anniversary Digital Reissue of Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Cries and Whispers’ in Cinemas this Spring

  • April 14, 2022
  • 5 min read
The 50th Anniversary Digital Reissue of Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Cries and Whispers’ in Cinemas this Spring

This month the BFI Southbank celebrates the work of Norwegian actor, writer, and director Liv Ullmann in the year that she was awarded an honorary Oscar for her ‘contribution to the art of film’. She spoke to a BFI London audience in NFT 1 on April 8th. 

Centre to this Sarah Lutton curated BFI Southbank season is the on-going showcasing of The 50th Anniversary digital edition remaster of the Swedish film ‘Cries and Whispers’, starring Liv Ullmann. This landmark Ingmar Bergman film won the Oscar for The Best Cinematography for Sven Nykvist’s striking lighting camerawork in 1974. Nykvist’s usage of close-ups was first evidenced in monochrome in Bergman’s 1966 film Persona. This time, however, instead of black and white, we have the subtle colourings of chiaroscuro facial close-ups. Narrative centrepieces illustrate two disconnected sisters, brought together inside their large family mansion, due to the illness of their dying sister Agnes. All captured by images that are reminiscent of the Dutch painter Vermeer. These scenes are shot either against black backdrops or in rooms filled with Bergman’s penchant for colour symbolism. Vermillion red is colour matched via merging carpets, walls and curtains. These are all set against jet black furniture, white cornices and skirting boards, sparkling white window frames and doorways. These salient images linger. 

Red may be the colour, but ‘blood is not thicker than water in this the tale of disconnected sisters and their housemaid. Here marriages are based on lies, where all the men behave like bastards. Added to this bloody steaming cauldron? The imminent death of Agnes awaited by her attendant family, displaying no unity. Only remorse. The very ingredients for an unfolding crisis.

An early scene illustrates smiling sisterly affection, outdoors, strolling on green grass lit lush by summer sunshine. Flashbacks showing the three sisters in long white dresses with matching parasols, capturing the very essence of a lost era. These images look like replica scenes from Manet or Dégas paintings from the French ‘Belle Epoque’. The period when this film is set.

At the beginning a wind-up music box accompanies a scene set cleverly against the sounds of ticking clocks. Time is of the essence here. The camera lingers over a vast open dolls house of exquisite beauty. Off set by the tortuous pain of the cancer suffering, bedridden, Agnes. She yells out with respiratory suffocation and pain. All too timely in 2022 amid this era of ‘virally loaded extreme Covid’. You could hear audience members draw breath. Two people nearby were already sobbing. Intense? Bergman is seldom anything else. He’s the godfather of ‘intense’ in all of its intimacy. 

Unlike many British films – so often dependant on translating novels and plays into film – Bergman’s films don’t drown in dialogue. The images tell the story accompanied by sparse words. This is pure cinema with a cinematic sense of purpose.

A key scene comes when Liv Ullmann, Maria, appears to be spying upon her husband as he’s sat with his back towards her at his writing desk. It sounds as if he’s sobbing. She enquires to see if he is alright? He swivels his chair around to reveal that he’s stabbed himself, mid-chest, with a kitchen knife in a failed suicide attempt. In an even more disturbing scene, Karin, off camera, appears to self mutilate herself internally. Why? An earlier clue is her saying, “This marriage is a lie”. In the subsequent scene, with her husband waiting to bed her, she reveals the bloodied damage with a flash. She then wipes her mouth with blood in an act of defiance. Its almost Hammer Horror, but not quite that mawkish.  

Many of these scenes mix to full screen red and into the next. “Red represents, for me, the interior of the soul”, said Bergman. 

A key scene appears to be a final loving reconciliation between Karen and Maria. Both heads filling the screen in big close-up. Here Bergman cleverly allows them their privacy. The sound disappears so we’ll never know what was said. We, the audience, the mere voyeurs denied audible access to their private stories. It’s a clever directorial trick leading to a final sisterly betrayal. The said ‘betrayal’ also ends with their mutual departure, dismissing the housemaid, Anna, who showed the only true love for their dying sister. After the death of Agnes, Anna had clearly outlived her family usefulness. Anna, however, had one last laugh, retaining the diaries of Agnes as a memento.

And so to the final flashback via Agnes’s diary, the ‘Belle Epoque’ Park scenes from the opening of the film. Meaning, ‘we’ the audience had come full circle after some 91 minutes of ‘Cries and Whispers’. 

It is all terribly sad, but performed to perfection by an exemplary cast. It’s also a film with a point. The sadness here is mainly that of the characters very own making. It’s a critique of the privileged classes, the institution of marriage, and selfishness. A journey into their inner souls.Themes that Bergman would go on to explore up until his final film, Fanny & Alexander, in 1982.

‘Cries & Whispers’ is currently on release throughout the UK. An exceptional brand new BFI Trailer is showcased below.

About Author

Henry Scott Irvine

The published author of Procol Harum's hardback Omnibus Press biography, Henry Scott-Irvine's writing began in the script departments of the British film industry. He continued as a Film & TV 'Music & Arts' researcher. He has a long background in published journalism. A radio producer-presenter since 2009 as well as a producer of the award winning documentary film Tales From Tin Pan Alley. He's a successful campaigner for securing listings and preservation for London's music & film heritage sites.

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